PARIS (Reuters) – French lawmakers approved tougher penalties for defying a nationwide confinement order as the coronavirus death toll rose on Sunday, with a first member of the country’s medical profession among the victims.

FILE PHOTO: French Health and Solidarity Minister Olivier Veran speaks after attending a weekly cabinet meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, March 4, 2020. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/File Photo

Reacting to news of the doctor’s death, health minister Olivier Veran paid tribute to medical staff confronting the pandemic and urged other workers to keep key services running, even as the lockdown halts many businesses deemed non-essential.

“The medical profession is making a heavy sacrifice in our country today,” Veran said on LCI television.

The doctor who died was an emergency specialist at the university hospital in Compiegne, north of Paris, where several other staff have tested positive for the virus, according to French media reports.

The coronavirus death toll recorded by French hospitals rose by 112 to 674 on Sunday, officials said, while the number of confirmed cases increased by 11% to 16,018 over 24 hours.

France’s top administrative court on Sunday rejected demands that it impose stricter confinement rules, but the government is taking its own advice on tougher measures.

Those caught defying the order – which has exceptions for essential commuting, shopping and solitary exercise – will also face harsher penalties, ranging from 135 to 3,700 euros ($3,960) and a six-month prison term for repeat breaches, under the health emergency bill approved by lawmakers.

Supermarket retailer Auchan [AUCH.UL] separately announced a 1,000 euro ($1,070) bonus for employees, amid concern over staffing levels in critical areas of the economy and public services.

The government is considering a tax-free “attendance bonus” for people who need to be at their workplace to carry out key jobs, officials have said.

“We’re asking citizens to continue mobilising to keep our economy working,” health minister Veran said. “Not for the sake of economic objectives or budgets, but because a single missing link can bring down the entire production system.”

Veran also said France was expecting preliminary results within two weeks from a clinical test of the effectiveness of anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine against COVID-19, the condition caused by the virus.

There are as yet no vaccines or treatments approved but trials are under way in the United States and Europe to see whether hydroxychloroquine can prevent, or reduce the severity of, the illness.

French hospitals began testing the anti-malarial and three other drugs on Sunday, research institute Inserm said, as part of a European program involving 3,200 COVID-19 patients.

Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau and Laurence Frost Additional reporting by Caroline Pailliez; Editing by Andrew Heavens and David Holmes

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